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Scholar on Mideast woes: It’s oil and water
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Scholar on Mideast woes: It’s oil and water

Oil pipelines built under the Middle East by competing European oil companies a century ago shaped borders, fueled nationalistic tendencies, and affected regional military strategy in modern times.

These vestiges of colonialism also are leaving their mark on the flow of water in a region in which the Jordan River is depleted and polluted, and potable water has become a valuable commodity for both Muslims and Jews.

“The Middle East territorial system was largely put in place by the colonialists,” said Rachel Havrelock, associate professor of English and Jewish studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Speaking Oct. 1 at the annual Ruth and Alvin Rockoff lecture of Rutgers University’s Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life, Havrelock said that new regional approaches to water conservation could transform the legacy of these conflicts.

The program, cosponsored by Rutgers’ Center for Middle Eastern Studies, drew a large crowd to the student center on the university’s New Brunswick campus.

Havrelock, author of River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line, is currently working on a book about the history of a BP oil pipeline that ran from Kirkuk, Iraq, to the port of Haifa from 1935 to ’48.

What she assumed was a blip in the tumultuous history of the region turned out to have far-reaching consequences into the next century. Oil executives and colonial rulers carved up territory and helped sow seeds of discontent between the nascent Arab and Zionist nationalist movements.

“None of the citizens had any rights to anything beneath the ground,” said Havrelock, referring to plans by both French and British interests. “They had no rights to anything subterranean, and that was where all the money was.”

The often arbitrary divisions of territory and spheres of influence were later codified in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1919, partitioning the Ottoman Empire among the European allied powers.

Because of widespread unrest and sabotage, surveillance stations were installed to house employees and arms. Today, these same installations continue to be military installations in their respective Arab countries and Israel.

“Saddam Hussein launched SCUD missiles into Israel to Haifa along the same aerial route of the pipeline,” during the first Gulf War, said Havrelock.

Today, as part of the 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan, the two countries send each other purified water. More significantly, 17 Palestinian, Israeli, and Jordanian communities have joined in the Good Neighbors Water Project to address a lack of sewage treatment facilities, pollution in the once mighty Jordan River, and sharing clean water resources.

“Many communities in the West Bank realize it is a regional issue,” said Havrelock.

She pointed out that untreated water “knows no ethnic boundaries” and its presence has resulted in a growing realization that collaboration is the only solution.

Toby Jones, associate professor of Middle East history at Rutgers, who spoke after Havrelock, praised her work on oil politics in the Middle East and the “hopeful politics” over cooperation of water resources.

While the legacy of oil “haunts” the region and relations between Arabs, Israelis, and Palestinians, water holds the promise to bring them together.

“We can live without oil,” said Jones. “We cannot live without water.”

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